Ontario's Liberal government is raising the income eligibility threshold for legal aid funding, the first time in 18 years, but the New Democrats say the cap is still too low and many who live in poverty won't qualify.
Attorney General Madeleine Meilleur announced Thursday that the income eligibility threshold would be raised to $11,448 — about half the poverty line — starting Nov. 1. The income threshold for a family of five to qualify will rise to $28,317.
"We will invest $95.7 million over the next three years — an increase of six per cent a year — to increase the threshold for receiving legal aid," Meilleur told reporters.
NDP justice critic Jagmeet Singh said access to justice is a real issue in Ontario, but the "nominal" increase in the legal aid income threshold still leaves many poor people with no practical way to hire a lawyer.
"With the cap set so low, many people who are living below the poverty level aren't actually qualifying for legal aid, which is absolutely unacceptable," said Singh.
Federal, provincial and territorial justice ministers failed to reach a deal on increased funding from Ottawa for legal aid during a meeting in Banff, Alta., two weeks ago.
The federal government used to split the cost of the program evenly with the provinces, but now only chips in about 16 per cent, and has not increased its level of funding for legal aid since 2003.
"We would love to get (more) federal money," said Meilleur.
The New Democrats said Ontario needs to step up to the plate, regardless of the drop in Ottawa's share of legal aid funding.
"That can't be a cop out," said Singh. "It can't be the case that just because we don't have the assistance from the federal government the Ontario government can throw up their hands and say 'there's nothing we can do."'
A recent report from Legal Aid Ontario estimated about 1.2 million people are below the poverty line but are not poor enough to qualify for legal aid.
The Progressive Conservatives said more funding for legal aid wasn't the "panacea" to the problems plaguing Ontario's courts.
"We have court backlogs that have nothing to do with who gets a legal aid certificate and who doesn't," said PC critic Sylvia Jones. "I don't think that it is the difference that's going to suddenly open up access to courts."
Ontario has different levels of criteria to qualify for other legal aid services, such as duty counsel assistance and legal advice, but not if income is over $19,080 a year for a single person or $45,580 for a family of five.
The higher thresholds will double the number of low-income Ontarians that will have access to legal aid services to two million in 10 years, added Meilleur.
The auditor general reported in 2011 that Ontario spends more per capita on legal aid than any other province, but helps the fewest number of low-income residents with dedicated legal representation.
British Columbia's legal aid eligibility for a single person is a net income of $17,760, while in Alberta it's $16,176, and Quebec's is roughly the same as Alberta's but as gross income.